Painting the Picture of a Product Manager

When we started planning the inaugural ProductCraft conference, we decided to embrace a “non-traditional” format. Yes, we would have speakers on stages, but we would also offer hands-on workshops and out-of-the-box activities. One of these that made the final event cut featured two things we really enjoy: big pieces of posterboard, and stickers. And no, we didn’t ask our attendees to make grade-school-style posters. Instead, we offered an opportunity for some personal introspection and a little bit of fun.

Near the entrance to the conference venue stood a large poster displaying the Anatomy of a Product Manager. Each body part was associated with one characteristic of a talented product manager, with nine in total. They were:

  • A head for business
  • An eye for detail
  • A nose for opportunity
  • Natural communicator
  • Fleet-footed
  • Resolute
  • Empathetic
  • Intensely Curious
  • Ambidextrous
The "Anatomy of a Product Manager" activity at ProductCraft, the Conference
The “Anatomy of a Product Manager” activity at ProductCraft, the Conference

We asked attendees to help us “paint the picture” of a product manager. They had to place a pink sticker next to their dominant PM trait and a blue one next to their secondary trait. Nearby, we had columns displaying more detailed explanations of each trait as easy references.

So, what was the verdict? Which traits were most popular among ProductCraft Conference attendees? Here’s how the stickers added up.

1. Intensely Curious

We’ll admit that we were surprised to see this trait in the No. 1 spot. If we’d been betting, we would have predicted that the trait below would have been the winner. Still, this outcome makes complete sense. A good PM isn’t satisfied with the obvious or explicit — he or she digs deeper and looks for opportunities others might not see. Successful PMs ask questions and then use data and user feedback to verify or disprove their hypotheses.

2. Empathetic

We’ve written a lot about the importance of empathy for effective product management, which is why we thought it’d take the top spot. However, it came in a close second. Why do PMs need to be empathetic? Because what they do impacts actual people. The best PMs are advocates for their users, their customers, their team, and their organization. Much of what a PM does relates to helping users overcome challenges and solve problems. To do that, he or she must put themselves in the person’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from.

3. Natural Communicator

PMs have been described as “CEOs of the product,” “cat herders,” and “professional go-betweens.” None of these metaphors is 100% accurate, but they all have some truth. And one thing they have in common is an underlying focus on communication, particularly between different groups of people. PMs often have to facilitate complex projects without any “formal” authority, like the ability to hire and fire or adjust the budget. Instead, they must lead through influence, which means clearly communicating specs and deadlines, delegating responsibilities between teams, and setting expectations for what will be done and when.

4. Head for Business

We were glad to this trait in the top half of the list. As product management becomes more and more central to an organization’s financial success, PMs will need to understand how their role contributes to the bottom line. Business schools seem to have jumped on the “business-focused PM” wagon already, as newly-minted MBAs are now flocking to roles in the field. Truly gifted product managers have deep knowledge of customer needs, market opportunity, scalability, and ROI. Any PM who wants to move up the ranks, potentially even to the CPO role, will need to know the ins-and-outs of their company, its competitors, its differentiators, and its positioning in the marketplace.

5. Eye for Detail and Ambidextrous (Tie)

PMs have a lot on their plates and constantly need to balance competing priorities. With so much going on, an eye for detail helps prevent key tasks from falling through the cracks. Plus, detail-oriented PMs are the ones who add those unexpected flourishes and little design elements that bring real user delight.

And being ambidextrous lets a PM move from one aspect of their role to another seamlessly and quickly, which is something PMs need to do multiple times per day.

The other three traits, Nose for Opportunity, Resolute, and Fleet-Footed, were at the bottom, with the final two tying for the last place. We still think they’re important characteristics for a PM, but perhaps not as dominant or secondary traits. Really, the best PMs encompass all nine traits and see the value in continuously broadening their professional skill sets.